Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant commanded the Union forces in the last year of the American Civil War. An outstanding general, Grant succeeded in bringing a bloody and difficult war to an end. He became a national hero and was elected president of the United States. But his talents as a military leader failed to make Grant a great president. In fact, his presidency is considered one of the worst in American history.
Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio. His parents named their son Hiram Ulysses Grant. But when he applied to West Point, America’s top military academy, his name got mixed up. At the academy he was known as Ulysses Simpson Grant. His friends called him United States Grant or U.S. Grant. He was an average student at West Point.
Grant graduated in 1843, and a few years later he fought in the Mexican War. After the war, Grant was assigned to various locations around the country and earned the rank of captain. But he quarreled with his commander and missed his family. Grant resigned from the army in 1854. He then tried to earn a living by farming and selling real estate. He failed at both jobs. Grant was so poor one Christmas that he sold his watch to buy presents for his wife and four children.
A BRILLIANT MILITARY LEADER
Grant was working as a clerk in his family’s leather shop in Illinois when the Civil War broke out in April 1861. Grant rejoined the army at the rank of colonel. He proved to be an exceptional leader, and he was soon promoted to brigadier general.
In late 1861, General Grant led the Union to victory in the first significant battles of the war. His men captured Fort Donelson and Fort Henry in Tennessee. Newspapers noted that Grant had demanded nothing less than “unconditional and immediate surrender” from the Confederate leaders at Fort Donelson. They began calling him Unconditional Surrender Grant.
Grant’s most spectacular military victory came in 1863 when his troops captured Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Confederate Army had controlled the Mississippi River from this stronghold, which allowed the Confederates to easily move supplies and men up and down the region. Grant also captured 30,000 Southern soldiers in the battle. The loss was a major blow to the Confederates. President Abraham Lincoln answered some criticisms of Grant by saying, “I can’t spare this man—he fights!”
SUPREME COMMANDER OF THE UNION ARMY
In early 1864, President Lincoln promoted Grant to lieutenant general. Only two other men, George Washington and Winfield Scott, had ever held that high a rank. Lincoln also appointed him supreme commander of all Union forces.
Unlike previous commanders, Grant aggressively attacked the South. His armies suffered a frightfully high number of deaths, but they won several big battles, including the battles of the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. Finally, Robert E. Lee, the South’s top general, surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865.
GOOD GENERAL, BAD PRESIDENT
After Grant’s remarkable military victory, both the Republicans and the Democrats wanted him as their presidential candidate in 1868. The war hero ran as a Republican, and he easily won the election, becoming America’s 18th president.
Grant had been a strong military leader, but he was a terrible political leader. Corruption and scandal plagued his two terms in office. High-ranking officials, many of them Grant’s friends, stole millions of dollars from the government. Nevertheless, he was re-elected in 1872.
An exception to Grant’s poor presidential record was his administration’s success in foreign affairs, led by the brilliant secretary of state, Hamilton Fish. Fish greatly strengthened the relationship between the United States and Britain. Grant and his government also passed important laws protecting the newly freed slaves of the South. Overall, however, historians consider Grant’s presidency one of the weakest.
In the last years of his life, Grant lost much of his money to bad investments. To earn a living and support his family, he wrote magazine articles and an autobiography, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. The book is a vivid description of war and military life, and it sold very well. Ulysses S. Grant clearly had a talent for waging war, but for little else.